“The Lost City of Z” director James Gray has never shot a movie with a digital camera, and he’s not planning on trying it anytime soon. He certainly resisted it for his new film, the epic story of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s search for a lost civilization in the Amazon jungle.
The movie, based on the 2009 bestselling book of the same name by David Grann, stars Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett, Sienna Miller as his wife Nina, and Robert Pattinson as Henry Costin, a British corporal who joins Fawcett on his search for an indigenous society. Tom Holland (“Captain America: Civil War”) plays Fawcett’s son Jack, who also joins his father on the expedition to South America.
During a press conference at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, Gray explained why — in an era dominated by digital filmmaking — he insisted on shooting on 35mm film, which cost an additional $750,000. “It’s a very easy answer: 35mm is better,” Gray said, adding that he “hates” digital and that the producers were “bummed” when they learned the director wanted to shoot using film. “No picture ever said, ‘Shot on digital, but please excuse the fact that it looks a little crappy, because it was easier for the filmmaker.’”
Shooting with celluloid did present some technical challenges, as two days worth of film stock was badly damaged in transit, according to Gray. “It was not without cost,” he said, adding that he stood by his decision to use film for the aesthetic qualities of celluloid. “Whether you like or hate it, it could not look this way on digital.”
Making a movie deep in the Colombian jungle also comes with added risks. Numerous crocodiles were spotted on location, and a bug-related issue forced Hunnam to miss part of a day of shooting. “I heard that he had an insect crawl in his ear and it was starting to eat his eardrum,” Gray said. “That was week two.” Holland added that he does not miss the jungle at all, and although he accidentally broke his nose on his last day of shooting, it was not related to the movie, as he was simply trying to perform a back flip for Gray between takes for fun. “I’ve been a gymnast since I was a little kid,” Hollands said. “It’s been years since I haven’t landed one.”
Fortunately for Miller, her biggest challenge during production was creative. “For me specifically it was [about] finding a way of making [Nina Fawcett] not just the wife,” she said. “It was finding depth and substance, because in that era she was really struggling against the confines of a very male, misogynistic society.”
Amazon Studios acquired the rights to “The Lost City of Z” earlier this year — the film was produced by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B — and while Gray praised Amazon as “great,” he added that the ability of a new entrant like Amazon to quickly make its mark on the movie business suggests the industry has become a “moribund system.”
“This is the kind of movie that you would think studios should be making, but they don’t,” Gray said. “They make superheroes. That’s what they’re doing now, and that’s fine — there’s nothing wrong with that — but what is wrong with it is that’s the only thing they’re making. They’re so risk averse that there’s nothing that you can possibly do now within that system that has any interesting aspect to it at all.”
He added that he’s worried about the segment of the film industry between low-budget indies and big-budget studio movies. “Truffaut said, ‘Great cinema is part truth, part spectacle,’ so what you have when you have a disappearing middle is you have a lot of spectacle with no truth, and you have movies made for four dollars that are all truth but no spectacle,” Gray said. “That middle, which was very beautiful, which was Alfred Hitchcock’s world and John Ford’s world and Orson Welles’ world when he did ‘Citizen Kane,’ is gone. Hopefully, Amazon will fill that hole.”
“The Lost City” opens theatrically in 2017.